[News analysis] When will Moon make his next visit to the US?

Posted on : 2020-11-05 17:02 KST Modified on : 2020-11-05 17:02 KST
Timing diplomatic visits to Washington has always been a delicate matter in S. Korea-US relations
South Korean President Moon Jae-in and US President Donald Trump shake hands at the Lotte New York Palace during their summit in September 2019. (Blue House photo pool)
South Korean President Moon Jae-in and US President Donald Trump shake hands at the Lotte New York Palace during their summit in September 2019. (Blue House photo pool)

As votes continue to be tallied in this year’s US presidential election — described by some as the election of a century, an election on which the planet’s fate may rest — people around the world are waiting anxiously for the results. Once the election results are confirmed, the big question for Koreans is when President Moon Jae-in will visit the US for a South Korea-US summit.

Whoever wins the election, opinions will need to be coordinated between the two sides in terms of the US administration’s North Korea and China policies, which will have a decisive impact on the fate of the Korean Peninsula.

Since the election results have not yet been finalized, the timeline for a potential US visit by Moon has to be considered in terms of a scenario where President Donald Trump is reelected and one where Democratic candidate Joseph Biden is elected.

Moon likely to visit US during G7 summit If Trump wins, in February if Biden wins

In the first scenario of a Trump reelection, the date of Moon’s visit is likely to happen within the year to coincide with the G7 summit. In late May, Trump stated his intention of bringing South Korea, Russia, and India into the G7 framework to create a “G11 or G12” to contain China. Amid the ensuing controversy, the meeting was postponed from its original August date until after the election. While Japan and others are bitterly opposed to South Korea being a permanent participant in the G7, the other countries have no basis for objecting to Trump extending a limited-time invitation to participate this year, with the US hosting the event.

A second scenario is one in which Biden wins. If this happens, a US visit by Moon will be postponed until after Jan. 20, 2021, when Biden is officially inaugurated as president.

At this point, former Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s “unconventional” behavior four years ago comes to mind. After Trump’s election was confirmed in 2016, Abe visited Trump Tower in New York on Nov. 17 to meet with the president-elect. But this was a highly irregular meeting that was only possible because of both Abe and Trump’s “maverick” styles. On Nov. 4, the Nikkei newspaper predicted, “If Biden wins, the US State Department could reclaim the initiative in foreign policy. There is a strong possibility [in this case] that it will abide by the convention of not agreeing to informal meetings before the official inauguration.” Since South Korea is no exception to the same rule, observers are predicting the date for Moon’s US visit would most likely fall in February 2021 or later.

One thing that should be noted here is the sequence in which a newly elected US president meets with the foreign leaders. In foreign affairs, it is said that “protocol is everything,” and the question of whom a US president meets first provides crucial basic information to predict how US foreign policy will proceed. From South Korea’s standpoint, a major focus of attention is on Japan, another US ally that is also in East Asia. But in terms of the sequences of summit meetings held since 2000, the US emphasized Japan, which it has referred to as a “cornerstone” of prosperity and development in the Asia-Pacific region, over South Korea, which it has called a “linchpin.”

In the most recent case in 2017, a US-Japan summit took place on Feb. 10, shortly after Trump was inaugurated. Abe was the second foreign head of state Trump met, after then UK Prime Minister Theresa May. In contrast, Moon’s visit to the US was unavoidably delayed due to the chaos surrounding the impeachment of his predecessor Park Geun-hye. Inaugurated on May 10, Moon did not meet Trump face-to-face until June 30 -- four months later than Japan.

A similar situation took place in 2013. Then US President Barack Obama met with Abe on Feb. 22, but did not meet Park until May 7, three months after she began her term on Feb. 25. In 2009, then Japanese Prime Minister Taro Aso met with George W. Bush on Feb. 24, while Lee Myung-bak did so four months later on June 16.

The situation was somewhat different in 2005, when George W. Bush won re-election. Then South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun met with Bush on June 10, but Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi -- who had previously made a show of his close ties with Bush -- did not insist on a US visit. The two leaders finally met face-to-face in Kyoto on Nov. 16, taking the opportunity presented by Bush’s visit to Japan. To be sure, there has been one occasion when the South Korean head of state met with a new US president before their Japanese counterpart. This happened with Kim Dae-jung, who met with Bush on Mar. 7, 2001 -- 12 days ahead of Yoshio Mori, who only did so on Mar. 19.

N. Korea has always been key point of discussion during summits

Another interesting point concerns the key agenda of past South Korea-US summits. For the most part, South Korean and US leaders since 2000 have discussed the North Korean nuclear issue and other matters of North Korea policy as their key agenda when meeting for the first time. At a 2017 summit, the South Korean and US heads of state (Moon and Trump) agreed to pursue a “resolution of the North Korean nuclear issue based on a stepwise and comprehensive approach” (as reported in a front page Hankyoreh story on July 1, 2017); in 2013, Park and Obama agreed on the two sides “proceeding toward a ‘comprehensive alliance’ that also extends to the economy” (front page story May 8, 2013).

In 2009, Lee and Bush called for “refusing to accept a nuclear North Korea and identifying new ideas for eliciting its participating in dialogue” (front page story June 17, 2009), and in 2005 Roh and Bush called for North Korea’s “swift return to the Six-Party Talks” (front page story June 11, 2005). The core agenda of the 2001 summit between Kim and Bush concerned close South Korea-US cooperation on North Korea policy (front page story Mar. 8, 2001).

By Gil Yun-hyung, staff reporter

Please direct comments or questions to [english@hani.co.kr]

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